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The International Writers Magazine: Central America- Archives

Medellin, Colombia
Tom Glaister

"Welcome to Medellin, my friend! Look at the mountains! Look at the women! I'll tell you a secret - it's called Paradise!"

For a moment I thought the old man who stopped me in the street was trying to sell me something. It turned out that he was just proud of where he lived. In fact, although Medellin is considered the most dangerous city in Colombia, if not the world, the locals never stopped singing its praises. The food, the weather, the people, they insisted, could not be better anywhere.

That isn't exactly the image that Medellin holds for the rest of the world. It's only been 13 years since the death of Pablo Escobar but the reign of terror the drug lord held over the town has damaged its image considerably. He hired young thugs to hunt the police and the streets were awash with crime and violence.

Medellin is a city set in a wide sweeping valley in the middle of Colombia. Its temperate climate and beautiful setting earn it the fondness of the locals, though even they warned me not to set foot in any of the slums whose lights glistened on the slopes at night.

For all the media hype I'd heard about Medellin, = in truth I've travelled in few places that had more life and
vitality. The streets are lined with markets and merchants scraping out a living however they can. They sell food, children's toys and impotence cures, anything that will help them live another day. But I almost spilt my beer when one night a man came into the bar trying to sell garden earth.

A traveler is a rare sight here and whilst it's easy to blend in, once the locals learn you're a foreigner you become something of a celebrity. With their view of the outside world programmed only television and the National Geographic, the chance to meet an actual foreigner is something precious; one day a couple of kids ran up to me to ask the time - they were wearing watches.

The fact that there are were no other tourists gave me the chance to work on my Spanish and, thankfully, Colombia has one of the the clearest accents in the Spanish speaking world. Another advantage of the lack of tourism is that there was no one trying to rip me off - whilst Medellin can be quite lawless, no one expects to see travelers here and so I passed unnoticed.

The city is full of parks and near the Metro are the famous statues of Botero, the Colombian sculptor who dedicated his life to painting and sculpting the obese. The subsequent fame of Botero gave the locals another reason to claim that Medellin was not far removed from Eden.

All in all, Medellin is a vibrant city full of educated people and, if it’s a little cut off from the world, that explains why the traveller is made to feel like a special envoy here. Which perhaps also explains their insistence that you fall in love with Medellin.

Yet when I saw the drug addiction, the children begging for change and even the odd machete fight in the street I began to question my choice of travel destination.  But then I'd go wandering through the market and see old ladies selling herbal cures, kids skating along behind the buses and numbchucku salesmen making impromptu kung fu demonstrations and I begin to fall under Medellin's charm again. Which isn't to say I didn't take precautions.

The locals quickly taught me the rules for staying safe: take taxis at night, never walk down shady streets and never walk home drunk - I'd make too much of an easy target.

The thing about danger is that it's quite abstract until it actually happens to you. In the meantime I was charmed every day by the Colombia hospitality, the beautiful people and the excellent climate. Once I knew  my way around town the risks were far outweighed by the rewards of living in the most dangerous city in the world. - World Travel Guides Online
© Tom Glaister April 2006

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